|Illustration of particle collision.|
[screen shot from this video]
There are various design options for the FCC. Costs start at €9 billion for the least expensive version, going up to €21 for the big vision. The idea is to dig a longer ring-tunnel, in which first electrons would be brought to collision with positrons at energies from 91 to 365 GeV. The operation energies are chosen to enable more detailed studies of specific particles than the LHC allows. This machine would later be upgraded for proton-proton collisions at higher energies, reaching up to 100 TeV (or 100k GeV). In comparison, the LHC’s maximum design energy is 14 TeV.
€9 billion is a lot of money and given what we presently know, I don’t think it’s worth it. It is possible that if we reach higher energies, we will find new particles, but we do not currently have any good reason to think this will happen. Of course if the LHC finds something after all, the situation will entirely change and everyone will rush to build the next collider. But without that, the only thing we know that a larger collider will reliably do is measure in greater detail the properties of the already-known particles.
The design-reports acknowledge this, but obfuscates the point. The opening statement, for example, says:
“[Several] experimental facts do require the extension of the Standard Model and explanations are needed for observations such as the abundance of matter over antimatter, the striking evidence for dark matter and the non-zero neutrino masses. Theoretical issues such as the hierarchy problem, and, more in general, the dynamical origin of the Higgs mechanism, do point to the existence of physics beyond the Standard Model.” (original emphasis)The accompanying video similarly speaks vaguely of “big questions”, something to do with 95% of the universe (referring to dark matter and dark energy) and raises the impression that a larger collider would tell us something interesting about that:
It is correct that the standard model requires extension, but there is no reason that the new physical effects, like particles making up dark matter, must be accessible at the next larger collider. Indeed, the currently most reliable predictions put any new physics at energies 14 orders of magnitude higher, well out of the reach of any collider we’ll be able to build in the coming centuries. This is noted later in the report, where you can read: “Today high energy physics lacks unambiguous and guaranteed discovery targets.”
The report uses some highly specific examples of hypothetical particles that can be ruled out, such as certain WIMP candidates or supersymmetric particles. Again, that’s correct. But there is no good argument for why those particular particles should be the right ones. Physicists have no end of conjectured new particles. You’d end up ruling out a few among millions of models, and make little progress, just like with the LHC and the earlier colliders.
We are further offered the usual arguments, that investing in a science project this size would benefit the technological industry and education and scientific networks. This is all true, but not specific to particle colliders. Any large-scale experiment would have such benefits. I do not find such arguments remotely convincing.
Another reason I am not excited about the current plans for a larger collider is that we might get more bang for the buck if we waited for better technologies. There’s the plasma wakefield acceleration, eg, that is in a test-period now and that may become a more efficient route to progress. Also, maybe high temperature superconductors will reach a level where they become usable for the magnets. Both of these technologies may become available in a decade or two, but they are not presently sufficiently developed so that they can be used for the next collider.
Therefore, investment-wise, it would make more sense to put particle physics on a pause and reconsider it in, say, 20 years to see whether the situation has changed, either because new technologies have become available or because more concrete predictions for new physics have been made.
At current, other large-scale experiments would more reliably offer new insights into the foundations of physics. Anything that peers back into the early universe, such as big radio telescopes, for example, or anything that probes the properties of dark matter. There are also medium and small-scale experiments that tend to fall off the table if big collaborations eat up the bulk of money and attention. And that’s leaving aside that maybe we might be better off investing in other areas of science entirely.
Of course a blog post cannot replace a detailed cost-benefit assessment, so I cannot tell you what’s the best thing to invest in. I can, however, tell you that a bigger particle collider is one of the most expensive experiments you can think of, and we do not currently have a reason to think it would discover anything new. Ie, large cost, little benefit. That much is pretty clear.
I think the Chinese are not dumb enough to build the next bigger collider. If they do, they might end up being the first nation ever to run and operate such a costly machine without finding anything new. It’s not how they hope to enter history books. So, I consider it unlikely they will go for it.
What the Europeans will do is harder to predict, because a lot depends on who has influential friends in which ministry. But I think particle physicists have dug their own grave by giving the public the impression that the LHC would answer some big question, and then not being able to deliver.